Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Bear to Remember: “Kung Fu Panda 2” is a Fun and Worthy Sequel

“Ah, my old enemy… stairs.”

“Kung Fu Panda” was a great little movie, one that I watched for the first time only recently. And it is with that fresh viewing that I happily saw the next chapter, “Kung Fu Panda 2.” I luckily didn’t see it in 3D because let’s face it at this point, unless severed body parts (i.e. Piranha 3D) or flying banshees (i.e. Avatar) are coming at me, I will stick to two dimensions. The animation here is colorful and crisp and bright, why ruin it by putting on darkly tinted glasses that will just end up giving you a headache? There’s enough action to delight the kiddies and enough solid storytelling to entertain us adults. “Kung Fun Panda 2” may not fit the mold of solid sequels like “Toy Story 3,” but why should it? It’s a fun action comedy that fits nicely into this superhero filled summer.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” sort of works as a prequel as it tells us of the backstory of our favorite rotund kung fu fighting panda bear Po (Jack Black). We remember from the last film that Po became the new Dragon Warrior much to Master Shifu’s (Dustin Hoffman’s chagrin. He joined fellow warriors Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (Tobias Fünke himself David Cross). Now we learn that Po’s goose father, the wonderfully lovable Mr. Ping (James Hong), is not his biologically father. Didn’t see that one coming. Turns out an evil peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) had killed off all the panda bears because a “warrior of black and white” would one day defeat him, but not before Po’s mother hid her baby in a vegetable crate, which made its way to Mr. Ping’s noodle shop. Now Lord Shen is back with a bunch of scary wolves and a powerful weapon and he’s hell-bent on revenge since he was exiled for killing off all those giant pandas.

There are several things I love about this movie and this series in general. First of is definitely Mr. Ping, Po’s father. I don’t know if it’s Hong’s great voicework or the terrific animation or the funny lines he says, but this is definitely one of my favorite characters. I sort of wish he were real. If I was ten years old I would definitely have a Mr. Ping toy or stuffed animal. I love the comradere of the Furious Five. Each character is well defined and their interactions are great and the talent behind each voice (even Jackie Chan!) is tremendous. I loved learning more about where Po came from because since the first movie, my main question always remained, “Why is Po’s father a goose?” And now I know! Both films are great because they’re essentially just action comedies but they are quite successful at taking traditional themes and story ideas (the story of the hero, destiny, the master & apprentice) and turning them into vividly scrumptious animated adventures. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Gleen Berger never dumb down their script just because they’ve written as “kid’s movie.” And first-time feature director Jennifer Yuh should be proud.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is a warm, and funny and action-packed successor to the 2008 Oscar-nominated original and certainly a welcomed sequel. And since the film sort of ends with a cliffhanger, I can’t wait for part 3. GRADE: B+

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bridal Glower: Kristen Wiig is in Over Her Head in the Hilarious but Heartfelt “Bridesmaids”

“I’m glad he’s single, cause I’m gonna climb that like a tree.”

When hasn’t SNL cast member and all around funny lady Kristen Wiig not ever been just flat out hilarious? Oh wait, she’s hilarious all the time. And she makes no exception for “Bridesmaids” the over-the-top but sweet comedy she co-wrote about a woman who’s asked to be her best friend’s maid of honor. There are several types of wedding movies. One is all about the over-the-topness of planning a wedding (think Father of the Bride) and the ones in which the friend of the bride or groom is secretly bitter about their friend’s impending nuptials. This sort of works as both. And since this movie carries the Judd Apatow seal of approval, there is plenty of gross out humor to make things wonderfully outrageous.

Most would agree that the previews for “Bridesmaids” looks like a female centered “Hangover” complete with gross out humor and silly characters. And while “the Hangover” was is a classic comedy, even for its young age, it doesn’t quite have the heart of an Apatow production. Kristen Wiig is Annie a lonely, single gal. She has a friend with benefits played by Jon Hamm, but he’s sort of a cocky jerk. She finds out her best girlfriend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has just gotten engaged and she’s promptly asked to be the Maid of Honor. She accepts but realizes it might be a lot of work and rather difficult to watch her best friend move on with her life, while Annie herself is stuck in a rut. Her ex-boyfriend dumped her after their cake shop went out of business and she has two of the weirdest roommates you’ve ever seen. Basically her life sucks.

Things go from bad to worse when she’s introduced to the rest of the bridal party. She gives the daggers to Helen (Rose Byrne) who is the young wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss. Helen and Lillian seem to have gotten very close in the few months they’ve known each other and like any normal person would react Annie gets extremely jealous. It’s because Helen is rich and perfect and beautiful. She even steals Annie’s Paris themed wedding shower theme and throws her the most ridiculous party which leads to one of the film’s funniest scenes in which Annie just goes off the wall crazy. There is a truth to the occurrences in Annie’s situations that ring alarmingly true. She’s easy to identify with and Wiig gives an authentically performance. There’s a subplot about her wooing a British police officer which really adds a layer of reality to the film, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her being flat out hilarious.

This is a comedy after all and the rest of Lillian’s bridal party is a collection of wacky women all played marvelously but the entire ensemble. We have Becca the reserved newlywed played by The Office’s Ellie Kemper, Rita the miserable married woman with three kids played by Reno 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Megan, who is sort similar to the Alan character from The Hangover, played by Melissa McCarthy. Megan is a larger, fowled mouthed woman who doesn’t let her weight get in the way of acting like the fiery tart she is. She has some terrific moments one of which includes her having to take a dump in a bathroom sink while wearing a bridesmaid dress.

The film is directed by Arrested Development and The Office alum Paul Feig. He has turned Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo’s script into a flat out funny and heartfelt romp that will have you laughing hysterically one moment and then practically tearing up the next. There are scenes are flat-out disgusting and why shouldn’t they be? Women have every right to be as gross as guys and they certainly are here. The rivalry between Annie and Helen is just simply astonishing to watch, and a scene involving the two of them attempting to have the last word while toasting at the engagement party is simply a wonderful scene of hilarity and awkward tension that was luckily left intact and not on the cutting room floor. This is a wonderfully made comedy that will certainly be one of the bigger hits of the summer. GRADE: A

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hammer Time: The Thunderous “Thor” Offers Plenty of Action, Humor and Drama

"This mortal form grows weak. I require sustenance!"

I’m not going to lie, all I know about Thor is what I’ve gleaned from the movie “Adventures in Babysitting.” That would be facts which include him having a special helmet, a hammer, a cape and that he lives in the city (downtown Chicago apparently). I do also know that he’s some sort of God with mighty powers, which sort of makes the movie “Thor” seems like a stranger cross between “Superman” and “Clash of the Titans.” While Thor is not an alien he is certainly from a world other than Earth. But he can fly and kill bad guys like a super man indeed with his trusty hammer. In all honestly this magical world of Thor went a little over my head. There were too many words and names I just didn’t understand which is why the film’s best scenes take place right here on Earth.

To put things simply, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished to Earth by his father King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) because he’s too cocky. Thor inadvertently reignited a years long war between their enemy people known as the Frost Giants. After his banishmen Odin becomes ill so Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) takes over. And it turns out Loki, unbeknownst to him, is actually adopted, but here’s the real kicker: he’s a Frost Giant!

Meanwhile, more interesting things are happening on Earth in New Mexico. Natalie Portman, fresh off her Oscar win plays a scientist named Jane Foster. Her and her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) witness some kind of weird storm, a tornado if you will. This strange, buff dude shows up (Jane accidently hits him with her van) and they take him to the hospital. It seems as though Thor has been exiled without any of his powers. His magical hammer has been banished too some 50 miles away and only once Thor learns how to be a true gentleman warrior will he regain his powers.

There is plenty of welcomed humor in these scenes. It dares to ask the question: what would it be like if some kind of God from another realm were to crash on Earth. Thor means well but he doesn’t adjust very quickly to the way humans act, especially in public. He gulps down some coffee in a diner and smashes the mug and quickly demands another drink. His three new human friends look at him with confusion and fascination. Jane knows he’s from some place not of this realm and she wants to use her scientific knowledge to open herself up to a world she could only possible know about this chance encounter. It’s too bad the feds confiscate Jane’s equipment and data as these strange happens are being “covered up” and we begin to learn things that will set in motion events that will eventually take place in the upcoming “Avengers” movie spinoff.

As strange as it sounds, Kenneth Branagh, the British actor you may recall has made plenty of Shakespearean films, helmed this project and he certainly lends a wonderful hand. He’s in pretty good control here and he certainly hasn’t met a canted angle he didn’t like. The scenes of the magical God realm is filled with elaborate Shakespearean costumes and set design and almost feels like some kind of weird futuristic setting for Hamlet. These scenes should be silly but somehow work onscreen as confusing as some of the story elements might be. I personally enjoyed the Earth scenes and Thor’s comic interactions with the lowly, powerless humans. The performances are good and there’s really hardly anything to complain about here.

It may not be my favorite comic book movie by a long mile, but Thor does have some impressive qualities. The action sort of flies by and there are some pretty genuinely wonderful moments. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t get to have the same range of character and emotion as say Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in “Iron Man” but that’s the way Thor is written. I’m sure comic fans will be pleased and Adventures in Babysitting fans will finally get to see what’s so great about Thor in the first place. “Oh Thor, Mighty God of Thunder” *Clink* GRADE: B